Hostage taking and propaganda

November 17, 2011

I’ve been hoping to write a post about the kidnapping of 3 foreigners from the reception centre at Rabuni, in the Sahrawi refugee camps, where I’ve spent many happy days on the way to and from the Free Zone for fieldwork.  However, time is short. Thankfully, Malainin Lakhal has written about it here in Pambazuka. This story has been squeezed dry for its propaganda value by Morocco and its apologists, and it’s fair to say that only party to benefit from this sorry affair is Morocco. This in itself raises some questions about who is behind it – it doesn’t take a genius or a conspiracy theorist to conclude that Rabat and its allies may have had a hand in the kidnappings, although the whole affair remains very murky.

Leaked Cables: Morocco and Western Sahara

December 15, 2010

Over at the Huffington Post Stephen Zunes writes about how the WikiLeaks cables illuminate the role of ideology in Washington’s approach to Western Sahara, with a pretty damning verdict on the ex US ambassador to Morocco (now in Cameroon), Robert P Jackson. However, beyond Zunes’ analysis and a few blog posts here and there, what the leaked cables have to say about Western Sahara has, unsurprisingly, received little attention. So, here is an attempt to plug the gap. I’ll try and expand/augment this post in due course, when time permits.

The discussion below is based on two cables circulated by Spanish daily El Pais, and three cables posted by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar (whose website is down as I write this). The latter are from a batch of nearly 200 cables obtained by Al -Akhbar from a source other than WikiLeaks, according to The Atlantic, which concludes that the cables are most likely genuine. Of course we have to entertain the possibility that they are not, although this seems remote. The cables discussed here date back to 2006 – those prior to 2009 (all but one) were sent when the last Bush administration was in power. I’ve included links to the cables available on the El Pais website. However, as the Al-Akhbar site is currently down, and the other cables do not appear to be available elsewhere, no links can be provided for these at the present time (I’m working from versions printed before the site went down). Some cables released by Al-Akhbar are available elsewhere, such as these from the Algerian embassy.

The cables cover a number of themes, around which the discussion below is organized. Cables are identified by a code indicating the year (first two characters), the place of origin (in this case Rabat and Casablanca), and the number of the cable.

Autonomy/MINURSO: pressure and protection

Cable 06RABAT678 describes a meeting with Taieb Fassi Fihri, Minister-Delegate of the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara was discussed. The tone of the cable is very much one that emphasises what it calls the “difficulty” of Morocco’s position, and Fassi Fihri acknowledged that the Polisario and Algeria are “probably not willing to discuss” the autonomy plan. One thing that is particularly notable in this cable is the statement that “Fassi Fihri wanted to be assured that the US would continue to support MINURSO even if a credible autonomy plan is not submitted in a timely manner.” The US ambassador is reported to have responded that “engagement between Morocco and other actors is necessary and that a substantive autonomy plan and implementation plan must be submitted or there will be no support for a MINURSO extension.”

Two conclusions may be drawn from the above. First, Morocco sees the MINURSO presence in Western Sahara as in its interests. This will come as no surprise to those who conclude that one of the main roles that MINURSO has played has been to freeze the conflict while Morocco entrenches its position in Western Sahara. Morocco’s desire to keep MINURSO in Western Sahara is deeply ironic, given Morocco’s insistence that the referendum that MINURSO is mandated to arrange will never take place. For those unfamiliar with the situation in Western Sahara it’s worth pointing out that MINURSO stands for United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. Second, the US put pressure on Morocco to move forward with the autonomy plan, egging Morocco on in the legitimization of its occupation of Western Sahara.

Corruption: occupation as opportunity

Cable 08RABAT727 addresses corruption in the Moroccan military, which is described as widespread (the term “plagued” is used liberally). The cable claims that “Lt Gen. Bennani [commander of the forces in Western Sahara] is using his post to skim money from military contracts and to influence business decisions”, and that it is rumoured that he owns a large part of the fisheries in Western Sahara. This situation is seen as symptomatic of the legacy of Hassan II’s deal with the military, which is characterised as “remain loyal, and you can profit” (historically, fear of a coup against appears to be one of the main determinants of the palace’s relationship with the military). In this context, the Western Sahara command is apparently seen as particularly lucrative and jealously guarded by a few families within the military. Outside of the military, cable 09CASABLANCA226 concludes that corruption in the real estate sector is increasing rather than diminishing.

Security and Terror: spectres and diversions

The leaked cables highlight Morocco’s strategy of playing the security card in order to bolster its position in Western Sahara, but also illustrate that they are overplaying their hand here.

Cable 09RABAT479 describes how Mustapha Mansouri, President of the Chamber of Deputies, “feared that the loss of Western Sahara would open a vast, anarchic ungoverned space, with no real borders extending thousands if miles east from the Atlantic. Only Western Sahara, under Morocco’s control, was an exception.” Mansouri used some of the arguments beloved of the commenters on this blog, particularly our old friend Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad, to characterise the conflict. He “said that the conflict was really a legacy of the Cold War and of Algeria’s continued attachment to Eastern, socialist models.” Mansouri reiterated the Moroccan position regarding the UN mandated referendum in Western Sahara, that “self-determination could mean autonomy or integration but not independence.” As usual, Morocco believes that self-determination for the people of Western Sahara means something determined by outsiders in Rabat. No further comment should really be necessary here.

[The above cable was sent in the context of visit by a number of US Senators, led by Senator Richard Burr, to Morocco. The cable concludes by saying that the Senators “learned more about Western Sahara”, and Burr “assured Mansouri that he would be welcomed on Capitol Hill.”]

Cable 8RABAT150 covers some similar themes, and describes a meeting with Mohamed Yassine Mansouri (no relation to the Mustapha Mansouri mentioned above), chief of Morocco’s external intelligence service. This Mansouri echoed his namesake, saying that “no Maghreb country, with the possible exception of Morocco, can begin to control its frontiers.” On the Polisario, Mansouri did his best to have it both ways, saying that “the terrorist threat there is real”, while being “very careful to say that the GOM [Government of Morocco] does not think the POLISARIO is a terrorist organization.” However, he did claim that

“…some members of the POLISARIO have joined AQIM [Al Qa’ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb]. Morocco is particularly concerned that should Algeria and the POLISARIO install themselves outside the berm in the no man’s land in Western Sahara, this could become a base for terrorist training and operations, which Morocco could not tolerate.”

We can only presume that Mansouri was engaging in the old Moroccan trick of deliberately confusing the 5 km buffer strip on the east and south of the berm (the only part of Western Sahara that might be described as a “no man’s land”) with the extensive area under Polisario control that, like the considerable large area controlled by Morocco, is designated as an “area with limited restrictions” under the terms of the 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire agreement. This, again, is a favourite tactic by Morocco, which seems desperate to deny the reality that Western Sahara is actually partitioned, with the areas controlled by Morocco and the Polisario having parity of status under the terms of the ceasefire, and therefore in international law (see earlier posts here and here). To acknowledge this fact would be to admit that all its autonomy plan will do is legitimize a partial occupation of Western Sahara, without actually resolving the conflict. As for members of the Polisario joining AQIM, well, show us the evidence. To those of us who have interacted with the Polisario this seems unlikely, to say the least. The Polisario leadership would be very unlikely to tolerate any such conversion, given its fears of radicalization among the population of the refugee camps and its concerns about its international reputation and image.

Cable 08RABAT727 rather deflates Mansouri’s claims, exhibiting a clear understanding of the geopolitical realities in Western Sahara as it talks about Polisario’s “small, lightly armed presence at a few desert crossroads in the small remaining part of Western Sahara outside the berm.” It goes on to say that

“the GOM [govt. of Morocco] almost certainly is fully conscious that the POLISARIO poses no current threat that could not be effectively countered. The POLISARIO has generally refrained from classic terrorist bombings, etc. Although the specter is sometimes raised, there is no indication of any Salafist/Al Qaeda activity among the indigenous Sahrawi population.”

Talking of radicalization, Morocco’s obsession with the “empty spaces” of the Sahara, and with the alleged terrorist threat posed by any settlement of the Western Sahara conflict not in its favour, is put in perspective by the very real and demonstrable radicalization of Moroccans inside Morocco. Cable 8RABAT150 describes how Minister of the Interior Chakib Benmoussa “pointed out that approximately 60 Moroccans had been arrested before they could depart Morocco” for Iraq, and that another 70 were “being watched and/or sought in the country and the region.” Morocco’s external intelligence service “noted that 139 Moroccan foreign fighters had attempted to go to Iraq since 2003,” with a “resurgence in the foreign fighter pipeline in 2006”. 40 Moroccans “had definitely reached Iraq, and 38 of them had participated in suicide missions.” The intelligence service also noted that “Moroccan cells cooperated with individuals and cells in Denmark, Sweden, Span, Saudi Arabia and Syria.” The Foreign Minister “lamented that potential extremists pay too much attention to al-Jazeera,” something that might not be a problem now, since Morocco kicked them out of the country for being too critical of the Moroccan government.

Cable 08RABAT727 briefly touches on the issue of home-grown militancy, stating that “reporting suggests small numbers of FAR soldiers remains [sic] susceptible to Islamic radicalization”, and reminding readers that those behind the 2003 Casablanca bombings included members of the Moroccan military. Following the 2003 bombings, “Morocco’s internal security services have identified and apprehended several military and gendarmerie personnel in other terrorist cells, some of whom had stolen weapons from their bases for terrorism.”

A number of the cables highlight Morocco’s concerns (real or contrived) about Mauritania’s stability, and cable 8RABAT150 reports that Morocco’s external intelligence chief Mansouri argued that “Mauritania’s stability was more important than democracy”. To the Embassy staff’s credit, they responded that they believed it was possible to have both stability and democracy in Mauritania.

The main conclusion to be drawn here is that, while Morocco is keen to see terrorist threats in Western Sahara and among the Polisario and Sahrawi, the real terrorist threats to the Moroccan state are emanating from Morocco itself, and Morocco is playing a significant de facto role in the export of militant Islam.

Deployment: massively committed, thinly stretched, and poorly prepared

Cable 08RABAT727 claims that the Moroccan armed forces (Forces Armées Royales, or FAR) are preoccupied with Western Sahara, with some 50-70% of its strength deployed there at any given time. However, the FAR are reported to be stretched thin in Western Sahara, with operational readiness estimated at 40%.

EU fighting al-Qa’eda through…fishing?

November 25, 2008

Recently I wrote to a number of MEPs about the European Union’s plans to grant “advanced status” to Morocco, making it a sort of associate member of the EU. This agreement includes Western Sahara as if it were a part of Morocco, presumably opening the way for the EU to steal natural resources from the Sahrawi people.

I have received two replies so far. One from UKIP, a fringe isolationist party that seeks more “independence” for the UK (from Europe), which simply directed me elsewhere. The other was from Andrew Duff, a Liberal Democrat, who has been to Morocco to discuss the process of bringing Morocco closer to Europe. I’ve pasted his response below.

Mr Duff mumbles about human rights but completely sidesteps the issue of the Western Sahara conflict, except to say, intriguingly, that the “Western Sahara Problem” is important for Morocco’s security. The poor chap appears to have swallowed all the “War on Terror” crap that Morocco is pushing to justify its occupation. Not sure what he means when he says that we “would be wise to recognise the growing presence of al-Qa’eda there [what, in Western Sahara?] and across the Maghreb.” I’m guessing he means that, in order to fight al-Qa’eda, the EU needs to be allowed to do lots of fishing in occupied Western Saharan waters (fishing, along with phosphates and oil, is a particularly contentious issue). Yes, I’m sure that will really put the frighteners on those barbarous beardies.

Of course I’ve replied. You can write to him too – I’ve included his details as contained in his reply. Or you can find him on the web (so I don’t think I’m guilty of giving out sensitive contact information).


Dear Mr Brooks,

Thank you very much for your letter of 22 October about the situation in the Western Sahara.

I have recently been to Morocco to speak to the government and human rights organisations about developments. In some ways I am much encouraged by the gradual democratisation process in Morocco, and by the political will to back structural reforms.

The Western Sahara problem poses a real security threat to Morocco, not least because of the growing presence of Al’Qaida there and across the Maghreb, and we would be wise to recognise this. By the way, I did not find anyone unwilling to discuss the problem.

But your general point about the need for respect for human rights is well made. The EU’s decision to give ‘advanced status’ to Morocco is taken in part to add to our leverage on Rabat with respect to human rights. I hope that in due time it will be possible for the EU to help the region resolve its longstanding conflicts. Certainly the situation in the Western Sahara is well-known and often rehearsed here in the Council, Commission and Parliament.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Duff

Andrew Duff MEP

Leader, UK Liberal Democrat European Parliamentary Party

Spokesman on Constitutional Affairs for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)

European Parliament
10 G 346
60, Rue Wiertz
B-1047 Brussels

Tel  + 32 (0) 2284 7998
Fax + 32 (0) 2284 9998

Well fancy that…

September 16, 2008

Those of you who follow the news from north-west Africa will have heard about the alleged al-Qa’ida attack in northern Mauritania, in which twelve Mauritanian soldiers died. The attack occurred just east of Zouerate, close to the border with Western Sahara.

Alle, on the always excellent Western Sahara Info blog, has a more meaty analysis of this incident than you’re likely to find on the mainstream news sources (as usual, AFP are confusing the Moroccan and Western Saharan borders). Alle makes the following observation about how these sort of things might be prevented and security in this rather large and desolate border region improved:

“What could help a lot is a formal framework for Algeria-Mauritania-Polisario-Mali policing, since these parties are already on friendly terms with each other, while Morocco is somewhat disconnected from the whole thing (by the berm). But, for political reasons, that wouldn’t sit at all well with Rabat…”

Certainly more security cooperation between the these four governments would help to reduce the risk of such attacks. Polisario is currently the only game in town when it comes to policing the Mauritania-Western Sahara border, at least in the direction from the former to the latter (they also manage the border crossing from Algeria into the Free Zone of Western Sahara), and their role would be crucial.

Alle is spot on when he points out that Morocco would become jittery if these governments, with whom relations range from difficult to hostile, started cooperating on security issues along what Morocco insists is its own border (despite its lack of presence in most of the areas concerned). Any such cooperation would also rub up against the section of the Berm that extends into Mauritania. We can be fairly sure that, despite its initiative to stop the “empty spaces” of the Sahara becoming a haven for the likes of al-Qa’ida, the US isn’t likely to be promoting a major role for Polisario in Maghrebian regional security. This would send the government in Rabat into fits of apoplexy, and Washington has been an increasingly enthusiastic supporter of Morocco’s occupation, at least under the latest Bush administration.

So, what do we have here? Apparently, a situation in which the potential for security cooperation to combat terrorism exists, but is unlikely to be realised, at least in part because Morocco wouldn’t stand for it and Morocco’s friends would therefore not support such an initiative (Morocco and its supporters would presumably do everything they could to prevent such cooperation).

Morocco often claims that its presence in Western Sahara is necessary to prevent terrorism, whereas in reality its occupation simply makes preventing terrorism more difficult by making regional security cooperation less likely. Let’s remember that one of the main reasons the Western Sahara-Mauritania border remains open is that Morocco’s slicing in half of Western Sahara means that it is impossible to travel from the Northern Sector to the Southern Sector of the Free Zone without transiting through Mauritania, in order to avoid the section of the Berm that extends into the far north-west of Mauritania. The Mauritanian government can’t police its borders unilaterally without making life difficult for the Sahrawi and the Polisario  or increasing regional tension, which it has no desire to do (neither does it have much in the way of resources with which to do so). The Polisario polices the Free Zone pretty effectively (try getting in without their permission and chances are you’ll soon come up against a patrol), but is denied a greater role in regional security  because this would upset Rabat.

Once again, we see that Morocco’s belligerence in Western Sahara only serves to exacerabate regional insecurity and destabilise the Maghreb.

Way smoothed for genocide in Western Sahara

February 27, 2007
The following is extracted and edited from a letter to Charles Clarke, my Member of Parliament. Morocco is being extremely active in promoting its new plan for the the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which it partially occupies, and has had a number of “constructive” talks with European politicians in recent weeks. Morocco has been praised for its efforts by a number of individuals and bodies, including political representatives of the EU. It appears that the way is being smoothed for Morocco to implement its own, unilateral “solution” to the problem of Western Sahara.The Moroccan plan involves what Morocco calls “regional autonomy” for the territory of Western Sahara within a greater Morocco. This plan rejects any future negotiations with the Polisario Independence government regarding the region’s status, and excludes a referendum on independence, counter to the rulings of the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, and the public position of the government of the United Kingdom, all of which claim to support the right of self-determination of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Morocco’s strategy appears to be to normalise its occupation of Western Sahara by appearing to give ground by granting autonomy, while in actual fact consolidating its control and neutralising the efforts of the international community to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.

Western Sahara is in reality partitioned between a Moroccan-occupied zone (the majority of the territory) and what the Sahrawi refer to as the “Free Zone”. The latter consists of most of the regions bordering Algeria and Mauritania in the east, and is of significant size. It is in the Free Zone that I and my colleagues conduct our field research, so I can speak on this matter on the basis of first hand experience.

If the international community supports Morocco’s plan to incorporate Western Sahara into a greater Morocco, the status of the Free Zone will be a key issue. Most commentators and politicians seem to be under the impression that Morocco occupies the entire territory of Western Sahara, and that support for its position would simply involve accepting the existing annexation, meaning nothing much would change. I suspect that if the reality of the situation (and the geography of the region) was understood better, there would be more concern about the security implications of the Moroccan approach.

Accepting the Moroccan position that Western Sahara is a part of Morocco is likely to lead to one of the following outcomes, all of which have severe security implications:

1. Morocco consolidates its occupation of existing territory but does not attempt to occupy the Free Zone, which remains under Polisario control, essentially becoming a de facto Sahrawi state. An uneasy peace continues as Algeria exerts pressure on the Polisario to avoid conflict with Morocco, but continues to support them as part of its ongoing political conflict with Morocco.

2. Morocco consolidates its occupation but does not enter the Free Zone. However, under pressure from the exiled Sahrawi population the Polisario declares war against Morocco, once it is apparent that they have nothing to lose, the international community having washed its hands of the issue. The scale and consequences of the ensuing conflict depend largely on the position of Algeria.

3. Morocco immediately attempts to occupy the Free Zone to extend its control over the entire territory of Western Sahara and in order to remove a potential future threat from a Polisario-controlled Free Zone. The Polisario resist, and the conflict drags in Algeria, and possibly Mauritania. (The Moroccan wall which separates the occupied territories from the Free Zone has already annexed a small area of Mauritanian territory. This is not shown on any maps – perhaps to avoid embarrassment to Mauritania – but is apparent on the ground and visible on satellite imagery.)

4. With the help of the West, Morocco makes a deal with Algeria in which Algeria agrees to restrain the Polisario from restarting the conflict as Morocco completes its occupation. A best case outcome under this scenario would be the dispersal of the exiled Sahrawi population in Algeria, Mauritania and other countries (including the EU and countries such as the UK). A worst case outcome would be that the Sahrawi in the camps resist and are expelled or exterminated by the Algerian security forces. With nothing to lose, the Sahrawi, who have to date been vehemently against terrorism in support of their cause, might change this position. Eschewing terrorism has certainly not helped them regain their homeland.

None of these scenarios is particularly optimistic, ranging from a festering of the conflict for decades to come to the possibility of actual genocide, with the emergence of new recruits to terrorism a possibility.

We can be certain that in its desire for the Sahrawi to disappear and in its repeated denial of the existence of the Sahrawi people, the Moroccan state is on the road to genocide, at least of the cultural variety. Whether this translates into actual extermination remains to be seen and will depend on whether the physical conflict resumes.

While this is on the one hand a question of justice and human rights, it is also an issue of international security. No-one will benefit from renewed war in the Maghreb. The only options for ending this conflict are to allow Morocco effectively to exterminate the Sahrawi people and their culture (the likely consequence of “political realism” on the part of the West), or to exert pressure on Morocco to enter into real and meaningful negotiations on self determination aimed at restoring Western Sahara to the Sahrawi people. The latter has been the preferred approach (at least in principle) of the United Nations and the international community, but efforts to this end have failed because of the lack of pressure on Morocco from UN member states. Indeed, Morocco has used its considerable diplomatic weight to sabotage the peace process since it began in 1991. There is little to be gained by telling the Sahrawi and their political leaders in the Polisario that they should accept an illegal occupation of their land and return to live under the control of an oppressive occupying power which would not welcome them, and which routinely tortures and sometimes murders their kin who live in the occupied territories.

Political pressure from Western governments can make a real difference here, helping to deliver security to a region beset by conflict for decades, and justice to a people who have lived in exile for over thirty years, perhaps even saving them from a possible genocide.